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What Is Working Memory?

This is an excerpt from Language of Coaching, The by Nicklaas C. Winkelman.

Part 1: Working Memory

We've all experienced the difference between a well-written book that flows and one that doesn't. Reading the former is effortless, whereas reading the latter strains the mind. And, while some would attribute this to story quality, those same people might be surprised to know that working memory had a role to play. To illustrate this, consider the following sentences:

  1. The athlete kicks the ball over the goal.
  2. The ball goes over the goal after the athlete kicks it.

Which sentence did you find easier to read? If you're like most, you preferred the first sentence. The reason for this is quite simple. Sentence one uses the active voice, where actions occur in the sequence they would in life (i.e., athlete kicks ball, ball goes over goal), while the second sentence is written in passive voice, where you don't find out who performed the action until the end of the sentence (i.e., ball goes over goal, athlete kicks ball). This is like a comedian giving you a punch line before you've heard the joke. Poor grammar aside, you are still able to understand the meaning of both sentences, a faculty you can thank your working memory for. Specifically, the second sentence tapped your working memory to a greater degree than sentence one, as you had to hold the outcome in your mind until you got to the end of the sentence and found out whodunnit. Thus, your brain had to work harder to comprehend the second sentence than it did the first sentence.

This simple exercise showcases the first memory system on our tour—short-term or working memory. While the terms are often used interchangeably, researchers agree that short-term memory refers to the temporary storage of information, whereas working memory refers to a system that is for the temporary storage and manipulation of information necessary for comprehension, learning, and reasoning (4, 6). From a motor-learning standpoint, we can extend this definition to include working memory's role in integrating new information with that from long-term memory to support decision-making and movement execution (47). For clarity, considering that the storage feature of short-term memory is accounted for in the definition of working memory, we will use working memory throughout the remainder of this book.

As humans, we're well acquainted with this memory system, as it is the subject of our frustration every time we forget the phone number we just looked up or draw a blank on the name of the person we just met. While on the surface, these “sins of memory” appear to be a flaw within the system, an “evolutionary mishap” if you will; a closer look reveals that this flaw is actually a feature designed to filter information into actionable “chunks,” where only the meaningful survive (62).

As famed Harvard researcher Daniel Schacter points out in his compelling book The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (76), if absentmindedness, the inattentiveness that leads to weak memories or forgetting to do something, weren't built into the brain, then we would be subject to remembering everything, the mundane and the magnificent, with little control over what was stored. And, while some would view this capacity for total recall as a superpower, a vastly different interpretation is suggested when we consult with the small minority of the population for whom this is true.

Known as highly superior autobiographical memory,or HSAM, for short, people with this condition can recall, in remarkable detail, every experience they've ever had from childhood forward (43). When asked about the condition (52), Jill Price, the first person ever diagnosed with HSAM, provided a surprising response:

Whenever I see a date flash on the television (or anywhere else for that matter), I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on, and on and on. It is non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting. . . . Most have called it a gift, but I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!

As we discussed in chapter 2, attention serves as working memory's gatekeeper—the mind's bouncer—allowing only the most relevant, interesting, or important information in. Just as you wouldn't go to the store and buy one of everything, you wouldn't want every memory to stand equal in the mind, leaving you unable to tell the dull from the distinct. Thus, the next time you forget a number or a new acquaintance's name, consider the alternative, and be thankful that your memory is working.

Even if we accept that working memory's apparent limitations are features, rather than flaws, it doesn't change the fact that there is limited seating in the theater of our mind. As such, coaches will always be challenged to ensure that the right ideas are getting a front-row seat. For this reason, we will build on the concepts from chapter 2 and examine the structure and function of working memory, laying the foundation to understand how the soundwaves of words transform into the mechanics of movement.